GOMALAR, Iraq—The United States fired missiles Saturday at Kurdish Islamic militants who allegedly are harboring followers of Osama bin Laden in a remote corner of Kurd-controlled northern Iraq.
The attacks, believed to be the prelude to a massive assault on the extremists by U.S.-backed Kurdish guerrillas, were directed by American soldiers on the ground, Kurdish officials said. U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who is directing the war, confirmed Saturday that American forces struck the enclave of Ansar al Islam.
Hours after the airstrike, in an apparent retaliation, a suspected Ansar suicide bomber detonated a taxi packed with explosives at a checkpoint, killing a Kurdish fighter and an Australian TV camera operator.
The blast injured at least 12 other people, including an Australian reporter accompanying the cameraman, their Kurdish driver and their Kurdish translator, hospital officials said. The others were Kurdish fighters and police.
The strikes on Ansar al Islam ("Partisans of Islam") had been expected for months after U.S. charges that the group was giving refuge to al-Qaida members who fled the American military operations in Afghanistan. Ansar imposed rigid Islamic rule on its territory and claimed responsibility for attacks on officials and fighters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a Kurdish group that controls the portion of Iraqi Kurdistan where Ansar has been holed up in a remote sliver of territory.
There are believed to be some 600 Ansar fighters and 150 al-Qaida members in the area held by the group.
The Bush administration has portrayed Ansar as a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, saying the Iraqi dictator has provided support and training to the group.
In January, Secretary of State Colin Powell, arguing before the U.N. Security Council for military action against Iraq, asserted that Ansar was making crude chemical weapons.
Kurdish officials have said Ansar also has received arms and ammunition from Iran's Islamic regime. Iraq and Iran have denied assisting Ansar, and the Iraqi government has said it has no ties to al-Qaida.
PUK commanders and fighters said 40 to 50 U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into Ansar positions between 12:30 and 2:30 a.m.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed at a Pentagon briefing that Tomahawk missiles struck the area.
At about 6 a.m. local time, an American jet fighter bombed an Ansar-held hamlet from which several mortars had been fired at Gomalar two hours earlier, said Maj. Hazhar Kanabi Rasool, a PUK commander.
U.S. cruise missiles also targeted another Kurdish Islamic militant group, Komal Islami ("the Islamic Group"). Komal, which is a registered political party, occupies a sliver of territory next to that held by Ansar. The groups are offshoots of the same Kurdish Islamic militant organization.
PUK officials contend that Komal fighters have supported Ansar with fake identification documents, food and ammunition.
Mustafa Saeed Qadir, a senior commander and a member of the PUK political leadership, said American soldiers directed the strikes from the PUK command center at Halabja.
Halabja is the town where 5,000 Kurds were killed in an Iraqi chemical weapons attack in March 1988.
More U.S. strikes on Ansar and Komal were expected, Mustafa said.
American special forces and intelligence operatives have been seen frequently in recent months meeting at the command center with senior PUK commanders.
The strikes Saturday did enough damage to Ansar positions to silence much of the gunfire that usually is directed at PUK fighters every day. But the militants didn't abandon their front lines.
Thousands of PUK guerrillas waited Saturday in Halabja and nearby areas for more U.S. strikes to soften up Ansar enough for a ground assault.
The suicide bombing occurred at 3 p.m. local time at a former Komal checkpoint at Girdigo, about 7 miles northeast of Halabja, only hours after it was occupied by the PUK.
Witnesses said Paul Moran, an Australian Broadcasting Corp. camera operator, was filming some PUK guerrillas by the checkpoint when a taxi that contained only the driver swerved to the side of the road, stopped and exploded. Moran died instantly.
PUK officials later identified the bomber as an Ansar member.
A large group of Western journalists has been at the checkpoint only minutes before the blast, and Moran was taking his final footage when it went off.
Eric Campbell, an ABC reporter based in Beijing, was injured in the head and arm by flying pieces of metal. He and his team's translator and driver were treated at a hospital and released.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Tom Infield contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ANSAR